Culture Lab: Research Building

   In September 2004 as founding Director of Culture Lab at Newcastle University, I steered refurbishment of a Grade II listed 1889 building which had previously been an elegant  social space, hotel premises, a soup kitchen, dining dancer, art school, and until summer 2005, Newcastle University's Sports Centre. The "Grand Assembly Rooms" were to become a 21st century interdisciplinary digital research hub. Culture Lab was the first arts and humanities-led project to be financed by the UK Science Research Investment Fund (approx. £4.5M). By autumn 2004 the project under Dewjoc Architects had reached Stage C in RIBA planning terms; my mission involved leading user and governance bodies to monitor physical plans against academic and cultural research aspirations, liaising with English Heritage to ensure we maximised the building's historic value.

   When sports activities left in summer 2005 and the contractor (Interserve) began strip-out of the largely rotten inner fabric, discovery of asbestos in the adjacent squash courts was compounded by that of unsuspected heritage features requiring major design changes. Partitions had occluded valuable mouldings and panelling, ruling out planned use of the largest ground floor room as an event  space. This was re-sited on the first floor, and the ground floor room became an open plan research area. Period tiles hidden under layers of concrete required restoration which was costly in terms of time and money. Setting plant on the roof to minimise vibrations demanded careful negotiation with City Councillors who dwelt on Newcastle rooftop sightlines. We could not afford a goods lift, so we planned for a first floor wall opening to be serviced by an external hoist - this measure proved worthless when a new construction was built directly against that wall on Culture Lab's completion.

   Avoiding prescriptive names and claims on spaces that would constrain evolving research, we numbered the eight main rooms according to a walk through the building (the neighbouring pub, the Crow's Nest, was soon baptised Space 9).  Culture Lab was opened to programme and budget in May 2006. Subsequent months snagging and kitting out facilities allowed their integration by the first research group at the start of the academic year. Numbers thereafter grew steadily to attain a core group of about fifty research staff, postgraduates, and artist residents from many different disciplines and backgrounds.

In 2007, Culture Lab was awarded the Conservation Prize in the RICS Renaissance Awards.  In 2009, the Culture Lab team led by computer scientist Paul Watson was awarded a £12M Digital Economy grant for a five-year research programme.